Building Safety and Trust with the Signs of Safety Model

The child welfare system can be scary and confusing for families involved with child protective services. Parents often feel judged, shamed, and powerless as others make decisions about their family and their ability to care for their children. This adversarial dynamic between families and child welfare workers too often leads to poor outcomes.

The Signs of Safety model aims to change these problematic dynamics by focusing on strengths as much as concerns. This innovative approach enables greater collaboration between families and professionals to build relationships of trust and find safe solutions together.

What is the Signs of Safety Model?

The Signs of Safety model was developed in Western Australia in the 1990s by Andrew Turnell and Steve Edwards. It has since spread to many child welfare systems around the world.

The model consists of principles and practices designed to:

  • Increase trust and transparency in the casework process
  • Focus on strengths and safety as much as dangers and risks
  • Utilize simple, jargon-free language and tools
  • Facilitate respectful collaboration between families and professionals

The ultimate goal is to create constructive partnerships between families and practitioners so they can work together to achieve safety for the children.

Core Principles of Signs of Safety

There are three core principles at the heart of the Signs of Safety approach:

1. Focus on Strengths and Safety

In traditional child welfare practice, assessments tended to identify primarily problems and risks. Signs of Safety aims to balance this focus by also identifying strengths, resources, and signs of existing safety that can be built upon.

Practitioners using Signs of Safety spends as much time exploring strengths and safety as concerns. This provides a more complete picture of what is happening in the family and creates a strengths-based partnership for solving issues.

2. Work in Partnership with Families

Rather than positioning professionals as experts dictating solutions, Signs of Safety recognizes parents as partners. Practitioners engage families in constructive discussions to gather their perspectives on the concerns, build understanding, and elicit parents’ knowledge to generate solutions.

This collaborative process enables parents to have a voice in decision-making. When parents feel heard, respected, and involved, they are more likely to engage with services and create change.

3. Focus on Everyday Language

In child welfare systems, professional jargon and formal assessments can alienate families. Signs of Safety utilizes everyday language to make discussions more transparent and involve the whole family.

Simple, jargon-free communication ensures everyone understands the issues and can contribute to solutions. This creates more meaningful dialogue and shared understanding.

Key Tools and Practices

Signs of Safety incorporates various tools and practices to implement its core principles:

Mapping the Story

Early in the casework process, the practitioner “maps the story” by exploring perspectives with family members on:

  • What are we worried about? (concerns)
  • What’s working well? (strengths and safety)
  • What needs to happen? (next steps)

This mapping conversation is the starting point for understanding perspectives and building partnerships.

Safety Scales

Safety scales are simple tools to assess levels of concern, strengths, and safety using scales from 0 to 10. Scales highlight small signs of progress that may be overshadowed by risk concerns.

Safety Planning

Safety plans identify immediate concrete actions a family can take to reduce risks and increase safety. This focuses the work on pragmatic steps forward.

Words and Pictures

Using simple words and visuals makes complex discussions easier to understand for children and adults. Pictures, diagrams, and color help capture important information.

Appreciative Inquiry

This technique explores what family members appreciate about their strengths, values, hopes, and accomplishments. Appreciative discussions inspire hope and motivation for change.

Safety Circles

Bringing together family members’ networks of support into safety circles builds a team to support change and provide accountability.

The Signs of Safety Conversation

The backbone of the Signs of Safety approach is a structured conversation framework for practitioners to guide interactions with family members. The conversation:

  • Explores perspectives on worries and risks
  • Discovers strengths and safety that can be built upon
  • Develops realistic next steps and safety plans

Keeping discussions focused on safety promotes collaboration. Parents feel heard and engaged as partners in safeguarding their children.

Impact of Signs of Safety Model

Research on the Signs of Safety approach has shown positive outcomes:

  • Increased transparency and trust between families and practitioners
  • Higher rates of family engagement with services
  • Reduced rates of removing children from homes
  • Shorter out-of-home care placements for children
  • Increased family and practitioner satisfaction

By balancing strengths with risks, Signs of Safety builds constructive working relationships that drive better results.

Implementing Signs of Safety in Your Practice

Shifting to a Signs of Safety approach takes training and practice. Here are some tips:

  • Check assumptions and bias – be open to each family’s strengths
  • Focus questions on building safety, not just assessing risk
  • Listen more than talking – seek to understand the family’s perspectives
  • Use jargon-free language – explain what terms mean
  • Embrace parents as partners in making plans
  • Highlight and validate small steps forward

The Signs of Safety method provides a path to greater collaboration, safety, and trust between those who share the duty to protect children. With patience and commitment, it can guide the way forward.


The innovative Signs of Safety model flips the child welfare system’s conventional script. By partnering with parents to amplify strengths and signs of safety, it reduces adversarial relationships. This fosters greater family engagement, motivation, and sustainable change.

Centering on safety and solution-building rather than risk and problems provides a shared north star to guide families and practitioners. The Signs of Safety approach has great potential to reform child welfare systems everywhere to be more just, compassionate, and effective.

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